An in-depth, issue-by-issue exploration of Marvel's Micronauts comics, including background on the Mego toys, the publishing contexts of its 1978 - 85 run, as well as its place in the pop culture and some of its lasting influences.
Last Free Comicbook Day I managed to almost complete my recently started back-issue collection of Micronauts. I have almost all the issues up to the end of volume one and a few of volume two, but as Bill Mantlo wasn’t involved in volume 2, I’m not as interested in those. I think it’s great that the writer who created the comic series was able to tell the stories he wanted to tell for 60+ issues. (More or less – see later posts.)
The story is that Mantlo was inspired to create the Micronauts comic series at Christmas 1977, when he looked closely at some of the Micronauts toys his son had got. The Micronaut toy line was begun in 1976 by Mego, and Micronauts issue #1 was released by Marvel comics just before December 1978 with a January 1979 cover date. (30 years ago!) It was Mantlo who pushed Marvel to acquire the rights to the toys as he was convinced he could tell a great tale with the properties. Sadly, this meant that Mantlo’s perhaps best and most fondly remembered work is twice removed from him in terms of ownership of the ideas.
This is a good site that focuses on the toys rather than the comics, and will give you an idea of the raw materials that Mantlo had to work with.
The dates are interesting, because a lot of Micronauts is reminiscent of Star Wars, which was released in May 1977. Most similar is the major villain Baron Karza, who, with his jet-black armor and face-covering, grill-mouthed helmet, is incredibly similar to Darth Vader. A lot of the elements of the story too, are similar, beyond the rollicking space-opera/medieval fantasy feel. Baron Karza commands a galaxy-wide empire and our heroes are a minority band fighting what seems at first to be a hopeless rebellion. Further, just like Star Wars, the hope for the future lies with the children of the recently ousted royalty. (Princess Mari is even introduced wearing a kind of headdress that is an echo of Princess Leia's Apple Strudel earmuffs)
As the toys, the comic and the movie all came out around the same time, it’s possible that they were all thought up independently, but some of the plot developments in Mantlo’s tale must have been partially inspired by Star Wars. The series is ostensibly science fiction, but like Star Wars there is a force permeating the universe that functions much as magic would in a fantasy story. In Jack Kirby’s New Gods it was called the Source, in Lucas’s film, the Force, and in Mantlo’s comicbook space-opera it is the Enigma Force that binds the universe together and grants supernatural powers to those who can tap into it.
In many ways Micronauts is a much more successful attempt to do what Kirby was trying to do several years before. It is much more accessible and simple than the New Gods, which was off-putting to many. It’s a more kid-friendly New Gods with the corners knocked off it and the rough edges smoothed out.
Mantlo came up with a fairly original source of Karza’s political power, which has nothing to do with the toys. Karza is a former professor whose control of the body banks, where obedient citizens’ lives can be extended indefinitely, has given him power over the whole society. Fear of death is something fundamentally human, so it’s interesting to see it worked into this fantasy tale so overtly.
The main hero of the early parts of the story is Commander Rann, also known as Space Glider. He has been on an extended deep space voyage to the edge of the universe for the past 1000 years, so he serves as an excuse to tell the reader what has been happening in the meantime. His many years of suspended animation have somehow linked him to the Time Travellers, who are otherworldly representatives of the Enigma Force. His ship is very old-fashioned compared to what are used now in Karza’s empire, so what took him hundreds of years can now be travelled in a matter of days.
A helluva lot happens in the first issue. Prince Argon and Princess Mari are captured by Karza. In his prisons they meet Commander Rann, the mighty warrior Prince Acroyear and the roguish Bug. We also meet the robot pair of the tall, fastidious Biotron and the small, brave Microtron. (Hhhmmmm!)
Rounding out the cast are the mysterious shadow priests, the villainous Acroyear Shaitan, and the enigmatic Time Traveller himself.
At the end of the issue, the rebels, having escaped from the prisons, flee to the very edge of the universe and break through to the Universe beyond.
Issue one ends with the following: “Six fugitives breach the fabric of space and streak faster-than-light speeds towards.... EARTH!”
(1400 - 170512)
A Micronauts script!
Before I leave the much anticipated issue 48, I have to mention that the script to most of it was reproduced in Mantlo – A Life in Comics. As it’s the only Micronauts script we’ve had access to, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to discuss it.
It gives a little insight into how the comics were produced and what a Marvel-style initial script for the artist looks like. There are no profound insights into the writer’s concerns or their art as we would find in a Morrison or Moore script. For the most part Mantlo’s script sticks to the visual essentials of what would appear on the page before he would write the final dialogue. The script page on the right, for instance, covers 4 whole pages of the comic, so the artist isn't given that much direction. There are lines of dialogue to give the artist an idea of how the characters would be feeling and acting, but even so, they often aren’t the same lines that appear in the finished comic.
When you think that Micronauts was a 30 page comic at this time, and Mantlo was also writing Rom, The Incredible Hulk and the Lord knows what else every month, then it’s understandable, and indeed even admirable, how Mantlo keeps the scripts short and to the point. Given those conditions, its not surprising that there is also evidence of haste and tight deadlines apparent in the script.
This was the first script Mantlo did for Butch Guice (it appears to be Guice's copy), and there is a hastily scribbled note to Guice at the beginning of the typed script.
“Butch – Sorry for the delay. Some of this you’ll just have to fake!”
The note is beside the "reference" section of the opening of the script. I guess the timelines were so tight that they weren’t able to get all the reference materials to Guice, or Mantlo knew that Guice didn’t have time to look into it all. It was all the reference material that Gil Kane found so hard to deal with during his tenure. For what it's worth, I don't think Guice slipped up too badly in any of the 30 pages he produced for this issue!
It’s funny to see such obvoius evidence of delays and deadlines and 'faking it' here in the script. So much for my diligent analysis of the comic and my arguments that the series could somehow have taken form as a classy shelf-worthy collection of sci-fi stories. These comics were obviously just thrown together as well as they could in time for the next deadline!
The next thing in the script is an essential piece of 'Micronautia' that I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned yet:
“DESIGN PORTRAITS OF ALL THE MICRONAUTS - - COMMANDER RANN, DEVIL, MARIONETTE, BUG, ACROYEAR, MICROTRON AND NANOTRON - - MUST APPEAR ON THIS SPLASH PAGE EITHER AS FULL FIGURES, HEAD SHOTS, OR A COMBINATION OF THE TWO (REALISTICALLY OR ABSTRACTLY DRAWN). DESIGN AS YOU CHOOSE, BUT VARY FROM ISSUE TO ISSUE, AND INCLUDE THEM ALL. THIS IS A TRADEMARK OF THIS MAGAZINE”
I do recall that as a kid, these little portraits were very helpful in the few Micronauts comics I read, in introducing me to the cast. This unique signature also added to the exotic feel that Micronautshad compared to more run-of-the-mill superhero comics. I can see how the intro portraits are especially useful with the newsstand model, where anyone might pick up any issue, and there is no assumption that anyone who is buying the comic is familiar with anything about them. The Micronauts were a newish bunch of superheroes who weren’t household names, after all.
It’s also a sign of the care creators took then to make their books as accessible as possible to the widest readership, and not to exclude anyone from the party. That spirit of inclusion is often missing from today's comics.
On top of all that, it’s a classy signature for the book to have, that the intro page always has those portraits, but presented differently each time. It’s eye-catching and fairly original. As ever, part of the appeal of this element of the opening page has to be traced to Golden’s wonderfully striking character designs in the first place. Golden casts a long shadow on this book.
Is it just me, or is there a note of pride in how Mantlo describes the unique and distinctive intro page of his unique and distinctive comic series?
Here’s Guice’s interpretation of Mantlo's instructions:
Not bad for a beginner! I will post a little more on the rest of the script later.
"Introducing the astounding artistry of..."
YOU CAN HARDLY SEE what he's doing under Bulanadi's inks! (sheesh) I swear it looks like Rudy Nebres.
This is why it wasn't until #50 that, SUDDENLY, with his 3rd issue, Guice's art blew my mind.
From the letters pages, it seems that Bulanadi was indeed quite divisive. I totally get what you are saying, but I'm in two minds myself.
The editors express their appreciation of Bulanadi in issue 48 though, and say that without him there wouldn't have been any Micronauts art at all around this time! Presumably he often had very sketchy art to embellish, and we've seen that Guice apparently didn't have much time at all to pencil issue 48.
A Micronauts script - pt 2
Some thoughts on the Marvel Method
It’s worth pondering for a moment the relationship between Mantlo’s scripting of the Mari/Huntarr fight and Guice’s 4 pages of artwork depicting it. In the script there are only 11 sentences, spread over 4 short paragraphs. Much of the staging of the fight is left to Guice.
I guess it is typical of the Marvel method, and also highlights a problem with it too. It’s easy to see that the writers would fall into the habit of setting up fights in each issue just so that the artists could carry some of the burden of creating the comic. I think that over the years, the FORM of how Marvel comics were produced has heavily influenced CONTENT. The preponderance of these fights might explain an enduring difference between the world of Marvel Comics and the world of the DC heroes.
And it has affected the whole culture of the MU. From the start, the Marvel heroes were much more likely to attack each other on meeting than their DC counterparts. Even close family groups like the Fantastic Four and the X-Men have habitually taken to physically attacking each other during domestic squabbles. A typical argument between Wolverine and Cyclops would be like my brother attacking me with a machete and me defending myself with a blowtorch! Somehow that level of violence, aggression and irresponsibility (at the risk of using a gross understatement) quickly became normalised in Marvel comics.
The effects of this aspect of the ‘Marvel Method’ have had a long reach. Marvel’s response to the complex and far-reaching meta-textual world-deconstruction of Crisis on Infinite Earths was Secret Wars, where a bunch of heroes and a bunch of villains arrive on a place called ‘Battleworld’ – natch! – to fight with each other for 12 issues.
In our own time, Marvel began the present era with Civil War, in which all the heroes fough each other, and at the present moment they are heavily promoting an Avengers Vs X-Men conflict as the must-see event of 2012. Once again, the heroes are going to fight with each other for 12 issues. This follows up a recent heavily-promoted crossover where the X-Men divided into two camps and fought each other.
These stories may be 'high concept' but they are hardly highly ambitious in concept. They quite clearly show how the conflict-reliant shortcuts used by practioners of the Marvel Method for most of Marvel's existence have now become central pillars of current publishig strategy.
All the conflict did give early Marvel comics an immediacy and punch that their more cerebral and plot-driven DC rivals often lacked, but it may be the reason why DC has tended to produce the more critically-respected comics in the long run. Moore and Morrison found the storytelling culture of DC very amenable to their work. They would have written their Marvel comics using full-script in the same way as at DC, but the culture of the Marvel Universe wasn’t entirely in tune with the kind of intriguing and challenging comics they have been lauded for producing. Off the top of my head, recently perhaps only Hickman’s SHIELD series* comes closest to being a current Marvel comic about ideas rather than about conflict.
*From what I understand of it. I haven’t read it yet. Is it still ongoing, or has it quietly died?
A Micronauts script - pt 3
In the pages available of Mantlo’s script for issue 48, there is only one item that is changed considerably between the script and the finished comic.
It seems that the ‘nerve-centre’ of the new Biotron spaceship was originally meant to look like the old Biotron, built into the bridge of the ship from the waist up.
That the ‘helmsman’ in the image of Biotron was changed at the last minute to the giant brain gives extra emphasis to the running theme I’ve discerned, where the line between organic and mechanical beings is constantly blurred in this series. Someone made a very deliberate, conscious decision to make the ‘brain’ of the ship look like an actual giant brain as pictured on the right!
Perhaps the visual occurred to Mantlo as a means to make the conversations between Rann and this new Biotron more visually interesting. Perhaps Mantlo had the brainwave of emphasising the ‘Bio’ in Biotron’s name and decided to make elements of the ship more organic, or perhaps the early pages of Guice’s pencils came in and Mantlo noticed that he was making much of the interior of the ship look like organic living material.
It’s hard to see where the blurring of the line between living feeling beings and machines fits thematically in a story about tiny beings from a smaller universe fighting against tyranny.
Nevertheless, having the nerve-centre of a ‘Giant robot’ Spaceship look like a living brain does have a few thematic implications, and perhaps we will see them developed a little more clearly in upcoming issues. In any case it is a much more striking, effectively alienating visual, and will play better than the Biotron “mini-me” helmsman they had originally planned to go with.
I’ve mentioned quite a few antecedents to Micronauts that Mantlo has been open about acknowledging, like the Fourth World, Buck Rogers and Adam Strange. Because of how the new Biotron was chosen at the last minute to be depicted here, the Micronauts will now be tiny explorers living inside what seems like a giant living body. This could be Mantlo’s way of acknowledging the small debt his series owes to ‘Fantastic Voyage’, a famous film about a team of scientists and military types shrunk down to microscopic size in order to travel through the bloodstream of some highly important person to conduct a life-saving medical procedure on him.
Raquel Welch and co had only to treat a human body, whereas Rann and his rebel band have a whole galactic body politic to mend.
Funny I never equated the Micronauts to Fantastic Voyage, a classic sci-fi thriller that oddly has not been remade. It would be easy to simply compare Biotron and Microtron to C-3PO and R2-D2 but Mantlo made them far more than comic relief. Their sacrifices and experiences elevated them from toys to characters.
I can't see much that unites them either, but the notion of tiny navigators travelling inside the big body brought it to mind.
Along with 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' and perhaps, at a stretch, that TV show about the tiny family trying to survive in the giant world, there aren't many truly iconic forebears of the 'tiny people trying to survive in a big world' genre. Fantastic Voyage was a huge movie in it's day, wasn't it? I remember my Mum being excited the first time it was shown on the telly!
Perhaps there is mileage in the idea which both of them illustrate, of microscopic 'anti-bodies' trying to heal the body politic. Anyone who sets out to change a sick political system would feel tiny and inconsequential to start with - remember Rann and co could only flee at the beginning - but medicine tells us that even a microscopic entity can affect a huge organism once it 'becomes viral'. It's one way to thematically tie the Micronauts' trademark teeny-tinyness with their political mission. Fantastic Voyage's plot meant that tiny Racquel and her chums were ultimately doing their bit against the vast and mighty Soviet empire, and its tyranny and oppression, so perhaps I'm not being to fanciful in connecting the two!
I'm still shocked that Microtron sacrificed himself for everyone essentially offscreen, between issues! Mantlo's is a serious moral universe. The terrible price that has to be paid to bring back Biotron lifts this series up. (I have a suspicion the loss of Nanotron wasn't a big sacrifice for Mantlo though, or the readers of the time!)
That Microtron would willingly heroically sacrifice himself, is another example of machines being equated with humanity in The Micronauts. Another example is how Rann then risks his own life too, to bring back Biotron. The intimate link they shared in the first place was yet another aspect of this theme.
There was one more line of the script I wanted to highlight. On the first page, Mantlo writes, "Remember I described it [the Bioship] as as big as a Volkswagon Rabbit."
In the toy line the Biotron figure was maybe as big as a Volkswagon Rabbit would be to a normal human compared to the rest of the toyline figures, or maybe a bit bigger, like a good size family car. (It was called a Volkswagon Golf, in the UK, btw!)
It would seem though, given how large Biotron is on the inside once Rann enters it, that Mantlo meant that the Bioship should be the same size as an Earth Volkswagon Rabbit would be to Commander Rann! That's absolutely gigantic, by Microverse standards! In this picture it does look about the size of a small car when placed bedside a WW2 fighter airplane.
Of course, I'm not sure what it all means, but it's interesting to see them trying to figure out the scale. In any case, I think it is impossible for the artist to get the relative sizes right all the time in a series like this. He has more to do in terms of storytellling and clarity in each frame than merely get the scale right. The Earth-set sections of this series would have presented the artists with endless problems in depicting everything in the script, and to scale. I guess we have to live with that. Still, it's interesting to see what the creators thought the scale should be, even if the pictures can't always get it across.
It is odd that Microtron's sacrifice wasn't shown. He was in the book from Day One and deserved better. Of course since Marvel doesn't own either Microtron or Biotron as they do the others perhaps Mantlo was instructed to begin eliminating the liscensed properties which was why Devil and Huntarr joined the team.
I watched Fantastic Voyage about twenty times and am still impressed with the effects and set designs. And by Racquel Welch for different reasons. Even today at near seventy, she is still stunning!
I fondly remember the cartoon Fantastic Voyage! That was a show! A highpoint in miniature adventurers!
Well, Microtron's death was shown, but in flashback - see the first post up there. It's just that it originally 'happened' between issues and offscreen. I'm not sure about your reasoning though. If it was about getting rid of the trademarked toys, why bring Biotron back looking more like the original toy than he had before?
"Along with 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' and perhaps, at a stretch, that TV show about the tiny family trying to survive in the giant world, there aren't many truly iconic forebears of the 'tiny people trying to survive in a big world' genre."
The ones I can think of...
DOCTOR WHO -- "Planet Of Giants"
LOST IN SPACE -- "Trip Through The Robot"
LAND OF THE GIANTS
DOCTOR WHO -- "Carnival of Monsters" (a very "LIS"-style story)
DEEP SPACE NINE -- "One Little Ship"
And then of course there's THE ASTONISHING ANT-MAN!
The Devil-Doll (1936)
Dr. Cyclops (1940)
Babes in Toyland (1961)
The Gnome-Mobile (1967)
Well, I did say "iconic" :-)
Land of Giants was the TV show I was trying to think of above. I've never sat through more than the opening credits myself.
"Trip through the Robot" could be the title of the whole Rann plotline in Micronauts #48
Ant-Man was rightly spotlighted earlier on in the run, and the readers picked up on how Broderick was using the power-set of the TTA Ant-Man rather than that of the Scott Lang version. Those Kirby comics would have been required reading for anyone setting out to draw Micronauts.
Luke's movies all sound wonderful, and make me wish I was more genre-movie-literate.
Regarding Microtron's death, I think Mantlo 'sacrificed' him because he knew that by bringing Biotron back after his dramatic death, he was 'breaking the compact' with his readers. By which I mean that Biotron's death had such an effect, as had Jasmine's demise, because the readers believed that it meant something. It meant something, as does death out here in the real world, because it was supposed to be final. To bring characters back is to break that compact with the readers, and Mantlo feels that he has to show that there is still a huge cost to bringing Biotron back.
Compare how Bucky was blown away in Fraction's Fear Itself for hollow 'shock' value only to reappear in Brubaker's Cap comics shortly after, bright and breezy and ready to keep on keeping on. Mantlo's writing has many faults but bad faith isn't one of them.